Cosatu leaders almost came to blows recently during a meeting of affiliate union presidents and general secretaries.
They were debating whether a proposed inquiry into the embattled federation general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi should continue.
"The meeting got so ugly," a senior Cosatu leader who was present at the meeting told the Mail & Guardian. "There were rocky meetings before, including the [former Cosatu president Willie] Madisha saga, but we've never seen something like this."
The events at the stormy meeting were confirmed by a second source.
The union leader also said Vavi was so livid that he said that "this was the end of the organisation of [Cosatu founding leader] Elijah Barayi". "He was anticipating that something nasty was going to happen at the CEC [central executive committee] next week."
The committee is expected to deal with several contentious issues, including the Vavi investigation.
Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven confirmed that the meeting took place but refused to comment about what transpired, including the claims that union leaders almost came to blows. "I don't comment on private meetings of Cosatu," he said.
The proposed investigation of Vavi has stalled because the union leaders failed to give the inquiry and its facilitators a clear mandate on how to conduct it.
The tensions in the trade union federation have also caused alarm in the ruling ANC, which this week announced that it would meet individual affiliates to help resolve any problems.
The M&G understands that, more than four weeks after the inquiry was appointed, it has made little or no progress at all as the anti- and pro-Vavi groups cannot agree whether the process should be regarded as a forensic investigation or a "facilitation process".
It has also emerged that the anti-Vavi group has attacked the Cosatu general secretary for failing to appoint the forensic auditing firm Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo to investigate the allegations of financial impropriety made against him.
They have also accused him of failing to provide the inquiry with a clear scope of what they need to investigate.
Vavi is accused of selling Cosatu's old building for R10-million less than its actual value, and that he awarded a tender to a company that employs his stepdaughter.
The pro-Vavi group has proposed that all allegations made against him should be discussed and resolved by a meeting of the presidents and general secretaries of affiliate unions.
The anti-Vavi group, on the other hand, is adamant that the inquiry should do its work without any interference. They argue that this week's meeting did not have the power to overrule decisions taken by the central executive committee, which agreed that the inquiry should take place.
The inquiry, which was launched in March, was supposed to be divided into three parts: a political aspect headed by the respected labour lawyer Charles Nupen; an organisational aspect led by the former president of the South African Municipal Workers' Union, Petrus Mashishi; and an administrative aspect, overseen by Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo.
The three were expected to report back at next week's Cosatu's central executive committee.
The M&G understands that the anti-Vavi group is planning to push for his removal at the meeting, while the pro-Vavi group is expected to put up a fight in his defence by, among other things, calling for a special congress so that ordinary members can be given an opportunity to decide Vavi's future.
The Food and Allied Workers' Union is expected to table a proposal for a special congress, which is likely to be backed by the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the South African Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu), the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa and the South African State and Allied Workers' Union.
Those against the special congress include the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu), the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) and the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu).
A senior Cosatu leader who attended the meeting described the atmosphere at the meeting as tense.
"People wanted to know why Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo was not appointed," the leader said. "Even the president of Cosatu, Sdumo Dlamini, did not know why the auditing firm was not appointed.
"A clear understanding was not given to the commission. This was deliberate and has left the commission frustrated.
"We could not agree. We reached a deadlock on the matter. Some wanted the process to continue while others felt Vavi should be given a chance to answer all allegations against him.
"What was surprising was that Gobodo was not there. We believe there is interference. The high possibility is that we may recall that chap [Vavi]. That's the plan. There might be people who want to defend him but he will fly. Heads will roll."
Craven refused to comment on the accusations made by some Cosatu leaders and on why Vavi failed to appoint the auditing firm to conduct a forensic investigation.
Vavi's supporters believe that he is being targeted for publicly criticising ANC leaders, including President Jacob Zuma. But some of his union comrades have also accused him of targeting them for allegedly using Corruption Watch to investigate them.
Vavi has dismissed the allegations against him.
The call for his removal has paralysed the 1.2-million-strong federation, with some union affiliates now at each other's throats, particularly with the NUM pitched against Numsa. Both unions are having executive committee meetings this weekend to decide how to deal with various issues at next week's central executive committee meeting, including the Vavi saga and the government's hotly debated national development plan.
The ANC is said to be worried that a divided Cosatu could have a negative impact on its campaign for next year's general elections.
But some in Cosatu are convinced that the ANC is partly to blame for Cosatu's woes. Unlike in 2007, when the federation was united behind Zuma, it is now divided. In December last year at the ANC's Mangaung national conference, Dlamini threw his weight behind Zuma, while Vavi was more critical.
"The ANC is panicking," said a Cosatu leader. "They started the fight and are to blame for Cosatu's problems. But they are now asking themselves who is going to benefit if Cosatu were to collapse."
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe this week said the party would approach individual Cosatu affiliates to shore up the ailing federation, a move that political analysts say has undermined the independence of Cosatu.
But ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza rejected this. He said there was nothing wrong with dealing directly with Cosatu affiliates.
"We've met the NUM, Numsa and Sadtu to understand what is going on in these sectors in particular," Khoza said.
"For example, we've seen fights in the mining sector, the tensions in Marikana and shootings, which is of concern to us. The alliance cannot look another way. The decision to meet individual unions is meant to assist to understand the dynamics and try to bring harmony.
"We are also concerned that the crisis in the mining sector may affect the economy, negatively impact on the rand and lead to job losses.
"Our meetings with individual unions focus on a broad range of issues, from labour brokering to the national development plan. No subject or issue is sacred. There are no holy cows."
Khoza denied allegations that the ANC was largely responsible for the deepening divisions within Cosatu.
"We have not contributed to the divisions within Cosatu. Ahead of Mangaung, there were people who were divided over the leadership at the elective conference but, once the delegates elected the new leadership, everybody put their differences behind," said Khoza.
"Cosatu is an independent organisation and has the right to differ with us. It has its own constituency and, from time to time, it would advance a particular line which suits their constituency, but that is the nature of the alliance."
Vavi could not be reached for comment this week. However, addressing the NUM's central committee meeting in Pretoria on Thursday, he said there were attempts to weaken the federation by dividing affiliate unions.
"We will, however, achieve none of our demands unless we transform our own organisations – building on our strengths and also recognising and boldly confronting our weaknesses," said Vavi.
"I have already referred to the external attacks we face – from the employers, the media, the DA [Democratic Alliance] and breakaway 'unions'.
"But our unity is also under internal attack, reflected in media campaigns based on lies and distortions about the federation and its leaders, spread by leaks from faceless, anonymous 'sources', with the sole aim of weakening and ultimately wrecking our proud federation. We must not allow that to happen."
ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize, who also addressed the same meeting, said the ANC was concerned about an unstable Cosatu and splinter unions within the federation.
He said the ANC's national executive committee recently decided it would "develop a comprehensive programme of engagement with individual Cosatu unions in order to understand their challenges and determine how we can all best respond to these.
"Cosatu unions and the formation of new rival unions are connected to the broader attack on the ANC itself. This is how we understand the formation of the so-called Workers' and Socialist Party (Wasp) which was preceded by the formation of Amcu.
"We understand these developments as part of the propaganda advanced by immature left-wing idealists that the ANC has become anti-workers and, therefore, should not continue to lead society. We must all work hard to regain lost ground," Mkhize said.